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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  11/2/2005


When the Index Does Not Help

The continuing release of additional indexes and finding aids opens up new worlds to family historians and relieved us of the burden of hours of page-by-page searching. I have found records in minutes that would have been virtually impossible to find otherwise.

However, the location of my great-grandfather's 1893 death certificate reminded me that not every record will be easily located in an index. This week we look briefly at that certificate and discuss when a manual search is necessary and what needs to be known before that search can begin.

1893 Birth Certificate
I knew the record was for my great-grandfather, but it could have been easily overlooked given the information it actually contained.

  • His first name was incorrect (Elineny for Frederick).
  • His last name was spelled phonetically (Ufcuss for Ufkes).
  • His year of birth could have been read as 1873 instead of 1893.
  • His parents' names were slightly askew. His father's first name could have been interpreted as Thon instead of Johann, and his mother's name appears to be Eliney instead of Noentjelena.

If all I had to use to find this record was the entry in the index (solely the name), it could have easily been overlooked.

Methodical researchers searching for a surname such as Ufkes would easily recognize Ufcuss as a variant spelling and view the actual record. However, if the first letter had been read and indexed as something other than a "U"� the index reference would have been more difficult, if not impossible, to find. Locating this record required a manual search of the records, which took much longer than using an index.

Page by page searches of records are often necessary because failure to locate an entry in the index does not mean the desired event was not recorded. It could simply mean that the item was overlooked, the handwriting was difficult to read, or the name was spelled incorrectly. Regardless of the reason, the researcher who has good cause to believe the item was actually recorded will need to search each record individually. Before any search of this type is conducted, the researcher should have:

  • An understanding of how the records are organized and recorded.
  • An estimate of the date of the event.
  • An approximate idea of where the event took place.
  • Other identifying information about the person that will help distinguish one individual's record from another of the same name. Names of parents, spouse, or children may be helpful in this regard depending upon the type of record.

The Structure of the Records
With birth records, the organizational structure is not too difficult to understand. The birth entries are recorded in the order in which they were presented to the clerk's office, not the precise order of birth. They are recorded together for the entire county with no additional geographic grouping. While the entries are roughly chronological, there will be occasional entries recorded a month or two after the event. The certificate in this case was recorded twenty days after the birth.

It is usually necessary to know more than just a name when searching for a record of this type. The actual amount of additional detail needed will vary; depending upon several factors. The two most important concerns are how common the name is and the population of the area. Searches for a common name in a highly populated area require more identifying information than do searches for unusual names in sparsely settled regions. Bear in mind however, that even in a rural setting, there may be more than one individual with the same unusual name (often named after the same unusually named grandparent!).

Estimate the Date
Family tradition, coupled with a death certificate, obituary, census enumerations, and a variety of other sources all indicated that Frederick Ufkes was born on 08 October 1893. This date was key to actually locating the record. A specific date will not always be available, but records such as these may help the researcher pinpoint at least a year or a time frame in which the event took place.

Estimate the Location
To use birth records in the United States it is usually necessary to know the county and state in which the event took place. For an individual during this era, death certificates, obituaries, applications for social security numbers, and other documents may provide a specific enough place of birth to begin a search. Census records should provide a state of birth, but this is usually not precise enough to perform a manual search of the records. Family tradition may also be helpful in determining where a birth occurred. Just remember that traditions are not always correct.

Learn Other Information
When the name is unusual, other identifying factors are not as critical. If the last name is Smith or Jones though having additional identifiers is an absolute necessity. For records of birth, knowing the name of at least one parent is a significant help.

Put It In Context
Copies of additional records (even for unrelated individuals) may assist you in reading the handwriting, interpreting numbers, or deciphering other notations on the desired document. There are times where it is possible to copy the documents recorded before and after the located item. With some records that may not be an option. If you have a copy of a vital record and are unable to read parts of it, see if the records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library by searching their catalog. If the records have been microfilmed you can then view your copy in the context of other records, perhaps allowing to finally read that funny number or odd-shaped wiggle that appears after your ancestor's name.

There are many times when a manual search of records is necessary. Indexes are fine, but if you have just cause to believe something should be recorded in a certain place in a certain time, search those records one by one. You may be able to find that missing ancestor.

Next week we will see what makes me think Elineny Ufcuss is actually Frederick Ufkes.


Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (www.fgs.org). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at mjnrootdig@myfamily.com or visit his website at www.rootdig.com, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005, MyFamily.com.

Michael's Other Articles in the Ancestry Daily News